The Making of Kurtz

Sven Lindqvist: Exterminate All the Brutes
Granta Books, London, 1997

If I were asked what was the most important book I read in 1997, it would definitely be this one. Its title is taken from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness : “Exterminate all the brutes!” scrawled the All-European Mr Kurtz at the end of the report he’d prepared for The Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which had sent him to the Congo. The novella was written a hundred years ago, at the height of the colonization of Africa, when Europeans were seizing the choice lands and natural resources of the “Dark Continent”, by means of deportations and extermination.

The Swedish author, who has written books on China and Latin America, represents a particular Scandinavian type who is driven by the suffering of human beings in the world - the pattern of Fridtjof Nansen and Alva Myrdal. Lindqvist ascribes to his brutal Lutheran upbringing his awareness of the capacity of Europeans for reconciling their conscience with the awful things they do to those weaker than themselves. He examines the intellectual and scientific atmosphere in Europe in the 19th century, and shows how the social-economic changes and colonial expansion combined with the new theory of evolution to give birth to racist theory. This arranged humanity on a ladder, with the German-Nordic peoples, the Anglo-Saxons and other Europeans at the top, and the Africans and particularly the Bushmen, at the bottom. The theory of evolution suggested that in the struggle for survival certain species become extinct to be replaced by other, ‘fitter’ ones, and the social-political application of this idea was enthusiastically adopted by much of Western society, including Alfred Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of evolution. Accordingly, the ‘inferior races’ - i.e., all the non-whites and especially those who did not have an advanced material culture - were doomed to extinction, and it would be merciful to shorten the process. The most obvious example of this application was the case of the Aborigines of Tasmania, of whom not a soul was left alive a generation after the arrival of the Europeans, thanks to the methods of expulsion, enslavement and extermination used by the colonists. In Belgian Congo, too, a policy of systematic extermination was carried out, leaving a mere 20% of the original population in many parts of the country. Since some of the dying was caused by diseases introduced by the whites, European scientists and philosophers drew a ‘scientific’ justification for the policy of extermination - here was proof that the inferior races could not survive in the presence of the superior race, meaning that Nature herself condemned them to extinction. Curiously, this murderous doctrine reached Germany a little later, when she began to establish colonies in south-west Africa. In 1904 the German army completed the annihilation of the Herero people, by deporting them, putting them into concentration camps and finally killing them. ‘Thus the words “concentration camp”, invented in 1896 by the Spaniards in Cuba, Anglicized by the Americans, and used again by the British in the Boer War, made their entrance into German language and politics’ (p. 150). Lindqvist describes a number of European ‘adventures’ in the course of the colonization of Africa, including gory expeditions by British, French and Belgian groups in various parts of the continent, in search of ivory and later precious metals and gems, and pleasant lands to settle in.

The rise of imperialism led to a favourable view of genocide among the educated people of Europe, as Lindqvist shows with ample quotes from various sources. For example, in 1898, a year before Conrad began writing Heart of Darkness, Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister of Britain, said in a speech at the Albert Hall: ‘One can roughly divide the nations of the world into the living and the dying.’ The weak nations would grow progressively weaker and the strong stronger... The term genocide had not yet been coined, but the idea was widespread and in the eyes of many, reasonable. Hitler was only nine when Salisbury made this speech, says Lindqvist, but he did not need to hear it. The air he and all people in the West were breathing was full of the conviction that imperialism was a vital biological process, which would put an end to the inferior races according to the laws of nature. ‘It was a conviction which had already cost millions of human lives before Hitler provided his highly personal application’ (p. 141).

What Lindqvist does in this book is draw a straight line from certain European behaviour in the colonies to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The idea that ‘inferior races’ must be destroyed - first by deporting them to barren and enclosed areas and later by more direct methods - had been acceptable and even respectable since the 19th century, but it had been applied in remote colonies. However, in the heart of Europe there were also a few million people who did not belong to the ‘superior race’ and threatened its purity. They were not ‘primitive’ in the material sense like the Africans, but the Nazis, seeking to apply the imperialist ideas and methods in Europe, decided that the Jews and the Gypsies were inferior because they were not of European origin, and were degenerate because they were nomadic and lacked territories of their own. They also regarded the Slav peoples as inferior, and since the concept Lebensraum - coined by the German scientist Friedrich Ratzel at the beginning of this century - had become commonplace, it was decided that it would be necessary to exterminate a large proportion of those nations, too, and to enslave the remainder, so that the ‘superior race’ could expand eastwards. In the United States the idea was already widespread that the savages - i.e., the Indians - were in any event doomed to perish, and it made sense to speed up the process and enable the white race to realize its ‘manifest destiny’ and expand westwards.

It was not easy to carry out in the heart of Europe the policies which Europeans had applied to their colonials subjects. Indeed, it was only made possible by the war. The thick smokescreen camouflaged the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’, which was carried out by the old colonial method: deportation, concentration camps and extermination. It was essential to act quickly and efficiently before the war ended - with Germany’s victory, of course - for which purpose they established a formidable system of death-camps. The novelty, says Lindqvist, was not in the method - though it was technically much improved by the Nazis - but in its application in Europe. ‘Auschwitz,’ he says, ‘was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested’ (p. 160).

Lindqvist quotes many sources, among them Arno J. Mayer’s book, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (1988), which looked through European history for precedents for mass extermination of various groups (e.g., the Crusaders’ massacre in Mainz, the horrors of the Thirty Years War, etc), and concluded that the Nazi Holocaust was indeed unique. But Lindqvist argues that if Mayer had extended his research to the European colonies he would have found precedents which would have put in the shade the examples he mentioned. ‘It is we who have suppressed it. We do not want to remember. We want genocide to have begun and ended with Nazism. That is what is most comforting’ (p. 141). Returning to Conrad and the Congo, he notes: ‘No, the Belgians were not unique, nor were the Swedish officers in their service... In practice, the whole of Europe acted according to the maxim “Exterminate all the brutes!”’ (p. 171). Moreover, the educated public was largely aware of the atrocities committed in the colonies in the name of progress, civilization and the demands of the market, and believed that it had to be so. ‘And when what had been done in the heart of darkness was repeated in the heart of Europe, no one recognized it. No one wished to admit that everyone knew’ (p. 172).

Ironically, all the theories which asserted that the inferior races - i.e., the non-whites - would dwindle naturally, and it would not take a great effort to eliminate them entirely, have been utterly disproved. Today even the Indians of North America, of whom only a broken remnant survived at the end of the 19th century, have multiplied again, though they have not yet recovered their numbers. The birth-rate in the ‘Third World’ is much higher than in Europe and North America. Today it is the white race that is dwindling, while symptoms of the old murderous racism are appearing here and there, as shown by the quote at the beginning of the book: ‘All Jews and Negroes ought really to be exterminated. We shall be victorious. The other races will disappear and die out!’ - from the manifesto of the White Aryan Resistance, Sweden, 1991. ‘In the long run,’ asks Lindqvist, ‘will a society that is unable to maintain the right to work be able to maintain the right to live?’ (p. 113). The book is written in a strange style. It’s central theme is worked into an account of the author’s journey across the Sahara, by truck and bus and on foot, burdened with a bulky old word-processor. But it is chock-full of data and contains an excellent selection of sources that draw the reader to explore the subject further. It is interspersed with some highly personal passages, including childhood memories and horrible nightmares experienced on the journey. This eccentricity is at first somewhat daunting, but the reader soon makes his way through the book, which leaves a powerful and thought-provoking after-effect.